Op-Ed | The fight against COVID-19 – in the palm of your hand

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By Tom Wright and Vanessa Barrios

On edge. Holding our breath.

This is the state of millions of Americans across the country as front line workers and the elderly receive the first COVID-19 vaccines. With each needle poke in the arm, we are one step closer to the end of this pandemic. 

It is, however, no excuse to let our guard down. Our top health experts say this winter will be bleak, adding it could be months before most of the general public receives a vaccine. What we do to continue fighting this virus in 2021 will be absolutely crucial for the region’s recovery – and will determine the place New York City holds on the world stage for years to come.

At Regional Plan Association, our work has always been focused on ways to proactively make the tri-state area work better for everyone. COVID-19 has presented a unique challenge that requires an organized, unified response from residents to keep the virus at bay while simultaneously setting the region up for a strong recovery. So the question remains: how can we keep ourselves and our loved ones healthy so we can all contribute to this recovery?  

We already know several simple strategies that work – social distancing, wearing a face covering, frequent hand-washing and routine testing. There is an even simpler tool, however, that can add a critical layer of support as we hang on in these winter months: the COVID Alert apps in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. 

Released in October thanks to a rare collaboration by Apple and Google, the app is an invisible shield that protects you right from the palm of your hand, pocket or bag. It sends an alert if you were in close contact with someone who tests positive for COVID-19. Knowing about potential exposure means you can take action – including self-quarantining, getting tested and reducing potential exposure to your family, friends, neighbors, co-workers and others.

The apps use bluetooth technology and not GPS tracking, meaning users remain completely anonymous because no data is being collected. Also, the power is literally in the hands of each user – anyone who downloads the app has full control over uploading their personal information and receiving notifications. No one should ever have to choose between privacy and their health. This app ensures users don’t have to make that choice. 

There is one nuance that comes with the COVID-19 app – it’s only as effective as the number of people who download it. In the United States alone, about 96% of people own a cellphone. Of this group, 81% of them own a smartphone. That means almost everyone in this country has the power to protect themselves and their loved ones just by downloading an app. But in New York, download numbers have been low and consequently so have the number of alerts sent to potentially exposed users. 

So why are millions opting to not use a free app that could potentially help save lives?

A recent Time magazine article cites several possibilities – including lack of a coordinated federal response, lack of technical expertise on the statewide level across the country, and unfounded privacy concerns by the general public. At the same time, millions of people are still traveling and gathering with loved ones. Many are experiencing “pandemic fatigue” and declining to adopt best practices like mask-wearing and social distancing that helped flatten the curve earlier this year. But the COVID Alert apps are a passive component to our response – users need only download the app and carry their phones with them for it to be an effective weapon in our ongoing battle. And no matter the reason for low adoption numbers so far, it is not too late for this technology to make a significant difference as we wait for vaccines to be widely distributed. 

We are living through one of the most significant periods in the history of our civilization. These next few months are critically important in determining how we will come out of this crisis.  Our tri-state area accounts for 10% of the country’s economy, and its recovery impacts more than just those who call this city home. 

Taking a minute to download COVID Alert NY, COVID Alert NJ or COVID Alert CT onto your phone depending on your home state – then letting your friends and family members know to do the same – will help New York maintain its status as an economic driver for the state and country. It will also ensure New York keeps its status as a place where people want to live, work and go to school for years to come. Start the new year off by taking another step to fight this virus – download the COVID Alert app and help save lives.

Wright is President and CEO at Regional Plan Association. Barrios is Senior Associate for State Programs and Advocacy at Regional Plan Association.